Posted in book reviews, The Wesleys and Wesleyan theology

Holiness for the MP3 generation- Part 3

dchUse the word “holiness” and – for some – memories of campmeetings and old-time revival preachers come to mind. Yet for those born since 2000, such things mean little. For a new generation more comfortable with social media than altar calls, new methods of communicating a timeless message are needed.

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, we looked at biblical and historical perspectives on holiness as described in Diane Leclerc’s Discovering Christian Holiness: The Heart of Wesleyan-Holiness Theology (Beacon Hill, 2010). In this the final installment, we turn to what Leclerc calls “Holiness Theology for Today.” Leclerc succeeds in mining the Wesleyan-Holiness theological heritage then bridging from the 18th century Methodist Revival and the 19th Century Holiness Movement to the 21st century, freshening up teachings on the Fall, full salvation, and five other holiness motifs (purity, perfection, power, character, and love).

Let us look at two themes from the latter portion of the book, namely, sin and God’s nature of holy love.


Chapter 6, “Created and Fallen Humanity,” addresses what may be termed the “problem” prior to later chapters exposing God’s gracious solution. Leclerc is correct to note the divergent definitions that Wesleyans and Calvinists use for “sin”:

…Wesleyans and Calvinists argue over the issue of sin. Their arguments are based on two very different understandings of what sin is. According to John Calvin, sin is falling short of the glory of God, or missing the mark. Thus any non-Godlike qualities or imperfections in humanity are considered sinful. Understandably then, a Calvinist could claim that we sin in thought, word, and deed daily. Most would simply say that we are sinful because we are not God (Leclerc, 160).

Leclerc does well to elucidate the reasoning behind the Calvinistic pessimism regarding sin. When seen in this way, it may be questioned whether John Wesley is very far from John Calvin on this point considering that Wesley admitted “infirmities” remain no matter how deep the sanctifying work of God in the human heart. Where we as Wesleyan-Holiness people sometimes go wrong, however, is excusing wrong attitudes or actions with the catch-all “I’m only human” rather than allowing the Holy Spirit to scrutinize and correct them.


Diane LeClerc


God’s nature as “holy love”

A second discussion that Leclerc engages is the question of God’s nature. Some – such as Ray Dunning and Ken Collins – have argued that the phrase “holy love” is an apt summary of God’s character. In Collins’ The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace (Abingdon, 2007), every chapter title incorporates in the words “holy love,” and Collins quotes Wesley’s repeated use of the expression “holy love” to sustain his thesis. Thomas Jay Oord, however, has argued that the term “holy love” is tautological, a needless piling up of words. If the nature of holiness is love of God and neighbor (Mark 12:28-31) – as Wesley taught- then saying that God is “holy love” adds nothing since “holy” is already contained in the idea of love.* (For more on love as the “core of holiness,” see Thomas Jay Oord and Michael Lodahl, Relational Holiness: Responding to the Call of Love [Beacon Hill, 2005], 70-72).

It is apparent that Leclerc is familiar with the debate between these two theologians. To her credit, she attempts to steer a middle course:

‘God is love,’ John says simply and profoundly. We may modify God’s love with the word ‘holy.’ But this adds little to an understanding of God because by nature God’s love is holy. The modifier ‘holy’ does remind us, however, that God is beyond us as other than us. God is holy and always different from us in nature (Leclerc, 274).

Leclerc has put her finger on an important duality in the doctrine of God. The LORD is both “high and lifted up” (Isaiah 6) and in Christ, God is “Emmanuel, God with us” (Matthew 1:23). There is both transcendence and immanence in God. To say that God is love underscores God’s immanence, but to say that God is holy love maintains in tension God’s transcendence and immanence, as does the whole tenor of Scripture. The truth of 1 John 4:8 must be balanced with passages like Isaiah 6, otherwise our view of God may become skewed.

Summing it all up

Though strong overall, one weakness of Discovering Christian Holiness is the lack of an index, a frustration for readers trying to locate specific passages in a hefty volume. Hopefully future editions will remedy this unfortunate omission. Yet whatever its shortcomings, Diane Leclerc has written an excellent book that will serve well both church and academy for years to come.


*from a conversation with Dr Oord


Posted in reflections, The Wesleys and Wesleyan theology

Love, or holy love? Why it matters

03202011-transcendentThere’s a conversation in Wesleyan circles about God’s nature. Thomas Jay Oord insists that the unadorned noun, “love,” is sufficient when talking about the character of God. Kenneth Collins, on the other hand, prefers to add an adjective, describing God as “holy love.” I side with Collins, and here’s why:

1. The biblical evidence – Two key New Testament passages come to mind. In 1 Peter 1:16, quoting Leviticus 11:44, God calls us to holiness in simple terms: “Be holy, because I am holy.” The verse is preceded by a call to avoid the “evil desires” that typified us when we “lived in ignorance” (1 Peter 1:14, NIV). Holiness is presented as the opposite of evil, i.e. righteousness. God is saying: “Pay attention! This is something crucial about who I am. Because purity is part of who I am, so it should be part of who you are.”

Yet if we stop there, we have only one half of the equation. 1 John 4:8 (NIV) teaches: “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” There is no hatred in God. Rather, God seeks the well-being of all creation. In fact, love does not exist where a genuine and prioritized interest in the well-being of others is absent.

2. Immanence and transcendence – Christian theology teaches that – in relation to creation – God is both transcendent (over and above) and immanent (close by). Isaiah 6:1 is the prophet’s vision of the LORD who is “high and lifted up.” This is the picture of transcendence, that the LORD is the Other, the Creator not to be confused with the creation. Yet this coin has two sides. In Jesus, Immanuel, we also encounter God with us (Matthew 1:23), the immanent one, close by and alongside all that God loves. This is a tension in our view of God, to be sure, but not unlike other tensions that we accept, such as Jesus being wholly human and wholly divine.

So where does this leave us?

If we say only that “God is love,” we are favoring part of the biblical revelation over another; it is an incomplete picture of God. Balanced doctrine takes into account what John Wesley called the “whole tenor of Scripture.” Though this brief essay has cited only a few passages, a more thorough study of Old and New Testaments would confirm that these dual emphases as related to God’s nature – holiness and love – exist side-by-side. Like a double helix strand of DNA, stability comes when the two remain joined together.

Danger lies in either extreme. Should we speak of God as only holy, inevitably our concept of God would be that of a distant, even harsh deity unable to identify with our weaknesses. On the other hand, if we only speak of God as love, we risk making God a doting grandfather who cares little about the moral quality of our lives. To maintain the transcendence/immanence tension – of the exalted, righteous God and the God who showed his affection for us through the incarnation of Christ – then speaking of God’s nature as “holy love” maintains equilibrium in our vision of who God is and who we are to be in response.

May the God who is holy love be our exemplar. May Jesus Christ – who is the very image of God – inspire us to lead lives that are simultaneously unpolluted by the world and selflessly poured out in loving service to others.


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Posted in book reviews, reflections, The Wesleys and Wesleyan theology

When is simple too simple? Relational theology and love

relational_theologyThe word “relationship” is part-and-parcel of evangelical jargon. A tract left on a public bench may ask in bold letters:

Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?

And it is through the prism of relationship that some Christian theologians are formulating their views. A recent example is Brint Montgomery, Thomas Jay Oord, and Karen Winslow, eds., Relational Theology: A Contemporary Introduction (Point Loma Press, 2012), a collection of essays written by 31 authors contributing insights from the relational paradigm to a spectrum of theological and philosophical issues.

Structure and target audience

Relational Theology is structured around four categories:

1. Doctrines of theology in relational perspective;

2. Biblical witness in relational perspective;

3. The Christian life in relational perspective;

4. Ethics and justice in relational perspective.

Nested under these headings are intriguing subjects, including (among others) sin, free will and determinism, the means of grace, how humans relate to the creation, social justice, and feminist theology. True to its sub-title, “A Contemporary Introduction,” each of the essays is short, presenting a fly-over view at 30,000 feet of the ground beneath. Footnoting is very limited, which frees the text of heavy documentation, making the read more user friendly, especially for the novice. On the the other hand, since the book is geared toward the non-specialist, it is puzzling why the editors chose not to include questions for group discussion at the end of each chapter. This would have made for better learning as well as improved marketing of the book to small church groups, Sunday School classes or other venues.

Those who clicked on the link above will notice that the book is listed as “out of print.” Strangely, Point Loma Press (the publisher) also does not list the book on its website. It is hoped that these glitches can soon be corrected so that Relational Theology will be easily available to readers.

Continue reading “When is simple too simple? Relational theology and love”